Here's how the Longman dictionary distinguishes the two senses of the noun 'conference'.

1 a large formal meeting where a lot of people discuss important matters such as business, politics, or science, especially for several days [for this sense, I assume, it's 'at a conference']


2 a private meeting for a few people to have formal discussions


Mr Dickson is in conference.

(from here)

I find this distinction quite subtle and hardly significant at all. Please explain the difference in usage. In addition, I have no idea why there's no article in the second example given the fact that it's a countable noun. Even my spellchecker Grammarly objects.

  • If you're at a conference, you could simply be an observer of an event; but if you're in conference, you're an actual participant in a discussion. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Dec 10 '19 at 5:28
  • @JasonBassfordSupportsMonica What do you think of Kate's answer? – Sergey Zolotarev Dec 10 '19 at 9:58
  • That answer is pretty much what I said in my comment, just phrased differently. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Dec 10 '19 at 12:41

(1) refers to a conference as an organised event - "International Conference on XYZ"

(2) refers to Mr Dickson being one of a group of people conferring together; it might be part of a larger event, or just a situation where local officials have come together to discuss some serious issue that has arisen.

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